Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog whose half life is longer than one year.
In this week’s blog, we’ll discuss what’s happened in the politics of nuclear energy since last year’s devastating earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power meltdown in Japan that has left great regions of Japan in physical and economic ruin. While Japan has begun to rebuild from the disaster, the current affairs of nuclear power has taken a negative turn, with some countries, such as Germany, departing from their energy infrastructures completely.
But why has this happened? Wasn’t nuclear technology supposed to be the energy source of the future? Right? No burning of fossil fuels, it’s based on cool physics, and you know…. the possibility for mutations to cause super human abilities (citation needed).
We’ll delve into this atomic “split” and see how the Fukushimi Dai’ichi meltdown was only part of the changing landscape of world energy.
A Disaster and a Reaction
On March 11, 2011 a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the Northeast coast of Japan unleashed a huge tidal wave or tsunami that raced to shore and caused immediate and immense devastation as a concerned world looked on in horror. As huge power grid failures and blackouts caused rescue workers to grasp in the dark for survivors, a larger menace was about to change the disaster recovery, and Japan’s economic future. Electronically powered coolers at the Fukushimi Dai-ichi nuclear reactor facility suddenly failed, and three of the four reactors at the facility overheated and began to meltdown.
A slow disaster response and an insufficient plan in place by the nuclear facility’s owners, Tepco, caused a huge radioactive leak from the reactors. This leak changed the strategy for the rescue team from salvaging the lost and buried from the affected area, to complete evacuation from the radioactive contaminated area, leaving thousands buried, lost, or drowned. Hydrogen gas accumulation from the reactor’s remaining heat (the 3% not shut down by shutting off the plant) caused an explosion and release of radioactive material well beyond the 20 km evacuation zone. Suppression of information led people to evacuate the area following the plume of radioactive material; evacuating to higher risk areas.
The nuclear meltdown was an epic disaster and embarrassment for the Japanese government and Tepco, eventually forcing Prime Minister Naoto Kan to step down. As the full scale of the disaster and nuclear meltdown became apparent – with death tolls reaching 20,000, 22.5 million tons of debris scattered, huge tracts of farm land leached by salt water, and of course the massive spread of radiation from the reactors forcing the abandonment of a huge swath of the country – many nuclear energy producers around the world began to question their faith and use of nuclear energy in fairly reactionary policies.
This first started with the Japanese themselves who have cut off 52 of their 54 nuclear reactors in the country, and are contemplating shutting off the remaining 2 in the near future. This plan seems like a natural and logical response given what had happened. By shutting down their nuclear energy program after the earthquake disaster, the Japanese are coming to the realization that it might not make sense to have 54 reactors on an island nation that is subject to tectonic plate shifts and tsunami aftermaths. They are also realizing that poor management and lack of oversight (the causes of the poor response and safety regulations) need to be changed. The logistics of this, however, are very difficult and for the short term make little sense.
Japan gets about 30% of its energy from nuclear power. With its reactors on a seemingly permanent hiatus, Japan has had to replace this lost supply with increased imports in natural gas. This is very expensive. Nuclear energy has for decades provided Japan with its own energy with a smaller dependence on imports (or colonization) for energy. The drawdown from self-reliance makes it financially difficult for Japan, and reduces the gains it has made in finance and manufacturing since the disaster. Japan will have to make serious strides in entrepreneurship and research into alternative domestic energy sources if it is to stay nuclear free with a strong Yen. This is all in the short term, however. If Japan decides it is too financially risky to abort its nuclear program all together, Japan may yet again return to nuclear power, but will it have learned its lessons?
The reaction from Angela Merkel and Germany in May of 2011 was a bit confusing, to me at least. Agreeing to shut down 9 nuclear facilities that supply 23 % of Germany’s energy doesn’t seem to be a fitting response, though a popular one in Germany. Anti-nuclear sentiment has been around for years, and Merkel used the huge increase in popular response against nuclear power to press for the shutdown of nuclear plants in Germany.
Though the SPD party and the Greens had fought to phase out nuclear power before the disaster, Ms. Merkel (upon her election) and her energy advisers thought it best to promote a transition energy policy to provide plentiful energy within an existing infrastructure before a large-scale change to wind and solar. Chancellor Merkel’s revert to her predecessor’s policy of closing all reactors by 2021 last May came with the immediate order to stop use of 7 of the oldest reactors, and then phase out the rest by 2021. The reactionary policy was out of fear of a Fukushima like disaster, not out of sensible policy. Here’s why:
- Germany, because of its geography, is not prone to major disruptive disasters like earthquakes and devastating tsunamis.
- The more fitting worry from the Japanese disaster is that Nuclear plants are not regulated for safety and disaster preparation.
- Replacing a significant amount of energy use will have to come from a fossil fuel source (most likely coal) until further work on wind projects is completed (this sort of defeats the purpose, no?)
Instead of figuring out an expensive way to replace nuclear power, Germany should overhaul their nuclear plant regulations to fit a more rigorous safety examination, though there’s evidence that Germany’s regulations are already much tighter and better managed than their unfortunate Japanese colleagues.
An even bigger problem faces Germany’s neighbor to the Southeast, the Swiss. Swiss officials announced last year they would not renew their aging nuclear facilities after their lifespans run their course. What’s the problem you ask? Switzerland gets nearly 40% of its energy from nuclear facilities. Even though they aren’t getting rid of all the facilities at once, the issues of replacing that source and keeping energy costs low will be persistent. For now, officials in Switzerland are continuing to call for a nuclear Bern-out.
In addition to Switzerland and Germany, Spain has banned the construction of new reactors, Italy has voted to stay non-nuclear, Belgium has considered phasing out its nuclear plants, and Mexico has sidelined 10 construction projects. So, the Japanese nuclear disaster has indirectly caused a tidal wave of retreat from nuclear power in many countries.
The Nuclear Energy Revolution & the Phase In
Ever since physicists attained nuclear fission in 1938, the ability to unleash a huge amount of power and energy from splitting radioactive atoms has taken a central role in physics and public policy. The well known Government backed secret scientific projects to develop nuclear weapons took the central role of physics due to the obvious geopolitical situation of WW2 (an understatement). While “Tube Alloys” (Great Britain), the “Manhattan Project” (the U.S.) and the Soviet atomic program developed reactors capable of handling “fast” moving neutrons capable of creating an uncontrolled chain reaction releasing massive amounts of energy (a bomb), scientists had already theorized the practical application out of the controlled reaction. This was confirmed by the 2nd MAUD Report (a commission report on the development and uses of atomic power),
“The second MAUD Report concluded that the controlled fission of uranium could be used to provide energy in the form of heat for use in machines… It concluded that the ‘uranium boiler’ had considerable promise for future peaceful uses but that it was not worth considering during the present war.”
The reaction of course is the chain reaction resulting from nuclear fission of the radioactive isotope of Uranium, mainly U-235 (a rare isotope) and Plutonium 239. I detail the nuclear reaction in more detail in my blog post on North Korea’s nuclear program.
The awesome power of nuclear energy demonstrated at the end of WW2 brought more public focus on nuclear power as an energy source. (Privately though, many governments continued to grow their nuclear stockpiles). The first nuclear reactor to harness the fission reaction and produce electricity (a small amount) was the Experimental Breeder Reactor (EBR-1) in Idaho in 1951. The reorientation of nuclear research towards energy was further confirmed by President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program in 1953. In Russia the following year, an existing graphite moderated reactor was converted into an electricity producing reactor.
One of the main efforts was in constructing nuclear powered submarines, an important development that would allow subs to stay underwater indefinitely; a game-changer in Naval strategy and history. This was pioneered in the U.S. by Admiral Hyman Rickover who installed a pressurized water reactor (PWR), a type of light water reactor, onto U.S. naval submarines. Rickover’s work was replicated on land as well as PWRs became the mainstay for American nuclear energy, and around the world, as currently 68% of the world’s nuclear energy comes from PWRs.
Beyond Government research and application, Westinghouse and General Electric in the U.S. pioneered their commercial nuclear reactors to connect to the electricity power grid they had helped create in the late 19th Century. In 1960, they created 250 MWe (Mega Watt Hour Electric) PWR and Boiling Water Reactors. By the end of the decade, the power capabilities had increased 4 fold, up to 1000 MWe. Many of these reactors in the U.S. stayed in operation until the early 2000s.
A general lack of enthusiasm for nuclear power set in in the 1970s and a stagnation in research, development and build up progressed throughout the next 3 decades, with the exception of the French. Having been occupied during WW2 and experiencing political instability in the post-war period, France was a bit late into large-scale use and development of nuclear energy. In 1973, as a result of the global oil crisis, Prime Minister Pierre Messmer put forth a plan to generate all of France’s energy from nuclear power. 3 plants were built that same year, and produced 56 reactors over the next 15 years. France presently gets 86% of its energy from nuclear power.
A greater concern for the environmental harm that nuclear plants could cause as well as the potential danger of a nuclear meltdown also dampered public spirit for nuclear energy. Public worry over nuclear power increased greatly after the nuclear reactor meltdown in Pennsylvania at 3 mile island in 1979. Though no one was killed, there was a bigger push against further development of new nuclear facilities, and improved safety measures.
An even larger disaster struck in 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear power plant in the Ukraine. The steam explosion and hydrogen explosion caused several fires, killed two workers immediately and caused the largest uncontrolled radioactive release into the environment ever recorded for any civilian operation – large quantities of radioactive substances were released into the air for about 10 days. The accident released 7 times more radiation than the Fukushima meltdown. 28 people died from radiation poisoning (mostly Iodine 131 and Cesium 137) within a few weeks of the accident, and forced the resettlement of 220,000 people .
You might figure that a similar retreat from nuclear power today occurred after 3 mile & Chernobyl, but more attention was paid to fixing design flaws and working to adequately train workers (direct causes of those accidents). Surprisingly, prior to Fukushima, these two instances were the only nuclear reactor meltdowns and explosions in the history of nuclear power. Instead of public demand away from nuclear power, people took the flawed Soviet nuclear design as a nail in the coffin for the Soviet Union.
A nuclear renaissance at the beginning of the 21st Century brought nuclear energy back to the forefront of public and private efforts. The recognition that nuclear power plays a hugely important role in the geopolitics of energy, the explosion of electricity need around the world and the role of nuclear energy as an energy source to limit carbon emissions and combat climate change all played roles in this regard.
It turns out that if a country (ie. Japan) uses a great deal of nuclear power, they are less dependent on foreign fossil fuels, most notably oil which is such a volatile commodity (no pun intended) when it comes from a recently unstable region. The other part of the renaissance was the introduction of a new generation of nuclear power plants in 2004. This 3G 1600 MWe reactor has been installed in Finland, but has created the most buzz in East Asia, where there is huge demand. Much excitement in global nuclear power has led to many projects being discussed and planned, but questions remain about whether to push through with these plans.
What can this nuclear history brief tell us about the status of nuclear power one year after the disaster at Fukushimi Dai-ichi?
- Nuclear power has seemingly great potential to supply more and more of the world’s energy needs
- If a country, or the world for the matter really wanted to make the change to mostly nuclear, they could do it (see France).
- Previous nuclear accidents have not phased out or stopped nuclear production; they have enhanced them and made production safer.
- Development of nuclear infrastructure requires huge public investment and public support.
- Countering the effects of carbon emissions and the security risks of foreign oil continues to be a big pro for nuclear development
So what happens next for the world’s nuclear power plants?
In certain areas, like Europe and the U.S., nuclear growth will probably remain stagnant. this is mostly due to a slow economy, but public dissent as a reaction to the Fukushima meltdown has already shown itself to be a deterrent to nuclear growth (Germany). On the other side, the 3G nuclear plants that debuted in 2004 are generating much fanfare for their planned use in China, a country who could use some lower carbon emissions, though implementation will likely be delayed for some time because of the disaster.
But will nuclear become the most widely used energy source? Most likely not, even if use in developing countries increases. Huge environmental risks remain, most notably in the storage of nuclear waste; a problem that has yet to arrive at a sensible long term solution. (dry cask storage is a decent start). Nuclear energy is certainly not a fix-all as was advertised in its ascent to widespread commercial use in the 1960s. Until environmental problems are solved, and political means align, it looks like nuclear power will remain just one of the pieces in the energy grid.
Until we break down the next radioactive issue,
Your Faithul Historian,
Eric G. Prileson
Sources and Further Reads:
The Economist, Briefing: Japan after the 3/11 Disaster – The Death of Trust. 3/10/2012